First read these:
And now for my story.
We think about sexual harassment and abuse in black and white terms in which there should always be a definitive, “This is wrong,” and the person involved is someone you can call out with no guilt, because that action defines their entire character. But this is not the case. Like everything else, sexual harassment does not occur in a vacuum, it occurs in a context. In this case, the context is a diner in Hadley, Massachusetts. Many former employees have had the courage to speak out about their experiences and now I must speak, too. Although I identify as a feminist, I could not bring myself to speak out about the multiple instances of sexual harassment while I was working there. I was (and am) too apt to forgive or to overlook because I always try my best to see the good in people but this should not make me blind to injustice. Or perhaps I am just a coward. It is a struggle to write this because after working at a place for five years, it’s hard to separate the good from the bad. Those who sexually harass aren’t monsters, they’re people and people are complicated. But just because someone has been good to you in once instance does not excuse what he has said or done in another.
I started working at the diner as a hostess the summer before I started college. It was my first job and I was naïve. I remember during my first training shift, the hostess training me showed me the kitchen. I could immediately feel the cooks’ eyes on me. “If the cooks hit on you or anything, just tell a manager or an owner,” she said. But there was an edge in her voice that told me that this did little good.
When I started working shifts on my own, it started immediately. As a hostess, I did not go into the kitchen often, but when I did I was often greeted with a, “Heloooooooo, gorgeous,” I would avert my eyes. “Hiiiiiii, sexy.” This was from the head cook. I’ll call him, Carlos.
“Hi,” I would mumble.
One time I was wearing a dress that showed some cleavage, but it was by no means inappropriate. With a large bust it’s hard not to show anything at all. As I walked into the kitchen to grab a to-go order I was greeted with barks and howls from behind the line. Every time I walked in it occurred, even there were managers or owners standing around. I felt violated, but I still didn’t say anything. Maybe this was just the standard? I had nothing to compare it to. This was my first job. As annoyed as everyone else would get, they would accept it at the end of the day. I did the same.
When I became a waitress two years later, I began to understand the full gravity of what occurred behind those kitchen doors. As a hostess, I only had to be in the kitchen for a minute, maybe longer if I was looking for someone. Carlos would greet me with his usual creepy grin but now I didn’t have a place to run away to. I had similar instances in the walk-in that my friends have already recounted where the light was turned off (because I had heard about this from other waitresses, I started yelling immediately) or I was cornered.
“You wanna go to a movie?”
“Why, you don’t like me mami? Is it because I’m ugly?”
“Okay, you don’t like me.”
Then the torture would ensue. For several weeks Carlos would refuse to speak to me on a professional level or yell at me for simple requests or letting him know something about the food for a customer. He messed up my food on purpose. It was a vicious cycle. After a couple of weeks Carlos would decide that he “liked” me again, become terribly nice, (“Anything for you, mami,”) make an unwanted advancement which I would rebuff and it started all over again.
The way I dealt with the other cooks wasn’t brave. I made the whole thing into a joke to blow off steam but in a way that would notify no one that anything was really wrong.
“Mami, what are you doing?”
“Pretending this cucumber is your cock,” I’d say as I chopped it up.
“What’s up mami?”
“Bitch, make me a sandwich.”
I had witnessed what it was like for waitresses who the cooks hated all the time, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. It was easier have them hate me only sometimes and to act like it was all big joke the rest of the time if it would make my job easier.
The relationship I had with my managers was complicated. They’d seen me through a lot: crying over cheesecake after a breakup, the day my father waited for me to get off work in the foyer to tell me that he was leaving my mother. One of the managers, Niko, let me sleep on his couch when I couldn’t stand to be in my house any longer because my parents were fighting so much. In these instances, they were good me, and I’m grateful.
But there were comments and gestures through those five years that I should have never accepted.
“Can I go home?”
“Yeah, just show Matt (a male waiter) your tits in the bathroom and you can go,” said Paul.
The tit talk never stopped.
“Show me your tits.”
“I bet it’s because you have big saggy tits with hairs coming out of them.”
One time Niko gave me a hug and tried to undo my bra. Whenever I would be on the ground getting teas or jellies he’d stand over me. “Can you look up at me with those pretty blue eyes?”
After these comments would be the, “you know I’m only joking right? Don’t talk to your friends and tell them that I’m a douchebag.” Niko knew about feminist convictions and I had no problem telling him that he was full of shit when we would argue about political issues such as abortion. But I couldn’t tell him that what he was doing to me right then and there was wrong.
I dealt with these comments and actions the same way I dealt with the cooks. I turned them into a joke. Those who rebuffed sexual advances or spoke up along with others were made fun of behind their backs or treated with outright cruelty. The tone in Paul’s voice would change noticeably when speaking to someone he liked versus someone he didn’t. If they made the slightest mistake, they were met with an onslaught of verbal abuse.“Don’t fucking do that!” “Are you fucking stupid?”
If Paul or Niko were in a bad mood or going on a power trip I was as vulnerable to the same abuse, but because I mostly laughed off what they said when it came to sexual harassment, I could avoid it most of the time. After five years, I didn’t even think about it. This was how I survived. It was cowardly but I didn’t want to lose my job or have my job be more hellish than it had to be.
This behavior was acceptable among the managers because the owners enforced it both actively and passively. One owner particular, Chaz, never sexually harassed anyone, but the way he would spit words teeming with rage for a small mistake would make you feel subhuman. As I began working early morning shifts, he and I would talk about politics. Despite having three daughters, it was clear how he felt about women. While talking about contraception he said, “well you could just keep your legs closed.” And he wasn’t trying to get a rise out of me. He was serious. Another time he said flat out, “feminism is stupid.” At least I can give him credit for being honest. As far as he was concerned, my personhood boiled down to either having babies or working my ass off for him as if I existed only in that kitchen. (For my last year there, I practically did.) It was no wonder that he didn’t take these complaints of sexual harassment seriously and made only minor attempts to stop it.
As I finish this I am not only disgusted with what I witnessed but I am also disgusted with myself. I am not the only employee at the diner who decided it was easier to make light of what was incredibly serious. We absorbed it, we accepted it, and sometimes we even perpetuated it, witnessing gross injustices on a daily basis without blinking an eye. One of my favorite writers, James Baldwin, wrote that the oppressed and the oppressor believe the same thing, and it was not until I left the diner that I fully began to understand what that means.